We do not like to think of God as a God of wrath. We would like to think of Him as a kind, benevolent Father who loves us unconditionally, understands that we are merely human, and would never think of punishing us. But it would be a mistake to worship a God of our own imagination. The question is, what is God actually like in reality? And the only way we can know that is through divine revelation: God himself must tell us what He is like, and this He has done in Scripture. We must go by what the Bible says, not our own imaginations.
And while the Bible says that God is a God of love, He is also a God of justice who hates sin and punishes it. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness’ (Rom. 1:8; NKJV).
The first question, then, is, why is God angry? The verse says that it is because of the “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” of men. The word translated “ungodliness” might better be translated “impiety” – the lack of any devotion or reverence toward God. “Unrighteousness” refers to lawlessness and injustice. As human beings we refuse to keep God’s law and mistreat each other.
Paul goes on in chapter 3, verse 5 to refer to “your hardness and your impenitent heart.” They are “self-seeking and do not obey the truth” (2:18). In other words, what is in view here not an occasional unintentional mistake or a sin committed in ignorance. What is in view here is something conscious and deliberate, an attitude of selfish indifference to others and a stubborn rebellion against the truth. We sin willfully, and thus we are without excuse.
In other words, God’s anger is an expression of His justice. He is angry with us, not arbitrarily or for no apparent reason. Rather, He is angry with us, justly angry, because of what we have actually done. It is a matter of what we deserve for our sin and rebellion. For God to love righteousness is to hate unrighteousness; to love good is to hate evil. If He cares for the victim He is angry with the perpetrator of the crime.
But then, the question is, how does God’s anger express itself? And here we are told that the wicked are “treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). In the day of wrath and judgment God will mete out to the wicked “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil” (2:8,9) The wicked will experience real suffering – “tribulation and anguish.” But it must be kept in mind that God is exercising perfect justice in this; it is not the arbitrary and unpredictable explosion of anger that the pagans predicated of some of their gods. Rather, the day of wrath is the “righteous judgment of God,” who “will render to each one according to his deeds” (2:5,6). “For there is no partiality with God” (2:11).
Christians, of course, have been save from the wrath to come. “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 5:9). Nevertheless, the doctrine of God’s wrath has important implications for the Christian life.
First of all, we should be careful to please God in all that we do and avoid sin, knowing that it is because of those very sins that people are in hell today. “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:6,7; cf. Col. 3:5-7). If God would punish a sin in that way we should dread ever to commit it.
Secondly, we may on occasion find ourselves having to disobey the civil magistrate when they command us to do something that is wrong. As Jesus sent His disciples out on their first preaching tour He warned them in advance that they face persecution, including the possibility of prosecution by the civil authorities. What Jesus said was grim and foreboding: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell” (Matt.10:28). Civil magistrates and courts may decree this or that, but right and wrong are ultimately determined by God and never change. Human governments have engaged in oppression and even outright genocide, but that does not make it right. “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
But most importantly, Christians should be anxious to share the gospel with the lost, knowing their future destiny if they do not repent. The apostle Paul could say that he “magnified” his ministry to the Gentiles “if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them” (Rom.11:13,14). There is a sense in which the eternal destiny of our fellow human beings depends on our presenting them with the gospel.
If we were to take the wrath of God seriously we would live differently. Our priorities would be different, and we would not be so casual about sin. May God help us to see things more clearly and live accordingly!